An Apache helicopter went down in eastern Afghanistan, Tuesday, killing 34-year-old Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Ruffner of Harrisburg and 27-year-old Chief Warrant Officer Jarett Yoder of the Reading area.
Few details are available but an investigation into the crash is underway. “In general when it comes to a helicopter crashes there are three causes,” says Staff Sgt. Matt Jones with the Pennsylvania National Guard. “It could either be enemy action, mechanical failure or pilot error and the investigation will determine which of those three causes – or combination of those causes – could have caused the incident.”
Officials can say that the soldiers were on a reconnaissance mission when the crash occurred, which is a typical task of the First of the 104th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion. More than 300 soldiers from that battalion deployed to Afghanistan last August for a year-long mission.
“The Pennsylvania Army National Guard has lost two of its own,” state Adjutant General Wesley Craig said in a statement. “Our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with the Ruffner and Yoder families… We celebrate the lives of these two Army aviators. They died helping others to be free.”
Yoder’s wife, Heather Garay-Yoder, also released a statement that says Jarett died doing what he loved and dreamed of doing.
The fatal crash occurred Tuesday morning. It is PA National Guard policy to wait 24-hours after family is notified to make these announcements public.
The National Guard’s in-state response to Superstorm Sandy wrapped up several days ago, but some 450-Pennsylvania troops remain deployed in New York and New Jersey. “The guys in New York are doing security work… they’re delivering supplies and delivering fuel all throughout New York City,” says Pennsylvania Adjutant General Wesley Craig. “The troops in New Jersey are primarily re-fuelers and they’re supporting the New Jersey Guard because they have so many troops on active duty they need help re-fueling their own assets.”
Craig estimates the cost of these troops is in the $2.8-million dollar range, but says Pennsylvania will be reimbursed by New York and New Jersey.
At the peak of the storm response, Major General Craig says 1,600 Pennsylvania National Guard troops were providing security & delivering supplies in the hardest-hit areas of eastern Pennsylvania.
Craig expects all of the deployed troops to return to the Keystone State by the end of the week.
State emergency management officials cited significantly diminished winds as, as the storm that used to be Hurricane Sandy slowly moved through western Pennsylvania and into New York.
There are reports of minor flooding across the state’s southern counties and 1.25-million Pennsylvania households were without power as of the midday briefing. 900-people have also sought aid in 57-shelters that have been established across the state.
But the problems are much worse in neighboring New York and New Jersey. “There are two mega-shelters being established to house people coming in from out-of-state,” Governor Tom Corbett explained. One, at West Chester University, will house up to 1,300 displaced New Jersey residents. Another, at East Stroudsburg University, will house up to 500 displaced New Yorkers.
Pennsylvania is also sending those states 35- ambulances and a variety of incident management teams, according to PEMA director Glenn Cannon.
A state of major disaster has already been declared in New York and New Jersey. Pennsylvania’s would-be major disaster declaration will have to wait until the damages are tallied, but Governor Corbett says the state will at least receive federal assistance for its storm prep. “Frankly I believe our preparation for the storm, in many respects, kept much of the damage in check, particularly when it comes to life and injuries.”
At least three Pennsylvania deaths have been confirmed in connection with the storm. Two of them involve falling trees, the third was the result of a traffic accident. That number may rise in the hours ahead.
Corbett will be at Ft. Indiantown Gap, this afternoon, to visit with some of the 2,000 National Guard troops that have been activated for the disaster response. Then it’s back to the PEMA emergency operations center for an evening briefing on the storm, and Corbett plans to tour some of the hardest-hit areas of the state on Wednesday and Thursday.
Unanimous votes in the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee have advanced two bills to the House floor. A newly amended version of HB 955 would both extend and expand the Pennsylvania Fire and EMS Grant Program. Gaming dollars currently fund $25 million in firefighting grants per year, but Chairman Stephen Barrar’s(R-Chester) bill would raise that to $40 million. “It’s very important that we get this $40 million dollars into the hands of our fire companies, the great majority of them are volunteer companies,” Barrar says. He notes that state gaming revenues have increased dramatically in recent years, but the program’s dollars have been constant. The legislation would also reauthorize the program for another four years.
The second bill to see action in the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, Tuesday, would raise Pennsylvania National Guard members’ minimum pay. Under current law, National Guard members ordered into state service by the governor are to receive a minimum of $75/day. “The minimum pay for state activated National Guard troops would be increased, it has not been done so for the past 15 years,” says State Rep. Doug Reichley (R-Lehigh), whose bill would raise that minimum to $100/day. The Pennsylvania National Guard Association lists HB 1758 among its legislative priorities. “Obviously, with the amount of work and strain we’re putting on our National Guard troops who are activated in state of emergencies, now is the time to recognize them for their service,” Reichley told the committee.
The Pennsylvania National Guard is mourning the loss of three of its members in Afghanistan.
47-year-old Sgt Edward Koehler of Lebanon, 49-year-old Sgt Brian Mowery of Halifax in Dauphin County and 30-year-old Staff Sgt Kenneth VanGiesen of Kane, McKean County were members of the 131st Transportation Company. They were killed and five other soldiers were hurt when a roadside bomb hit their convoy as they transported supplies in Afghanistan on Monday near Bagram. The unit has been deployed since January.
State officials say Sgt. Koehler graduated from Lebanon High School in 1982 and joined the Marine Corps. He served as a Marine until 1988, took a ten year break from military service, then enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1997. He had been deployed to Kuwait and Iraq with the unit from 2003 to 2004.
Sgt. Mowery, a 1980 graduate of Central Dauphin High School, served in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1979 to 1985. He joined the Army National Guard in 2000 and spent several months in Kosovo from 2003 to 2004 with the 111th Infantry Regiment.
Staff Sgt VanGiesen graduated from Kane Area High School in 1999 and enlisted that year in the Pennsylvania National Guard. He was on his fourth active-duty tour, having served in Germany and Iraq.
Governor Corbett says the tragic incident is a stark reminder of the dangers our troops face on a daily basis for the cause of freedom. The Governor says we owe them our respect, our support and our gratitude.
Major General Wesley Craig, Pennsylvania adjutant general, says “The impact of the tragic loss of our three soldiers is felt throughout the entire Pennsylvania National Guard.” Maj. Gen. Craig says “We will honor their service by caring for their families left behind, and by increasing our determination to accomplish the mission they set out to do.”
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